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Raising beef cattle looks different on every farm

TAGS: Marketing
adamkaz/Getty images Beef cattle and calf
NEW IDEAS: This may be a good time to consider outside-the-box ideas such as agrotourism and value-added direct-market products.
Beef Column: Consider new strategies that may boost income.

Spring is just around the corner, which makes it a great time to consider what you would like to change. Some people have personal goals, but what about your farm goals? Are there aspects of the farm you would like to upgrade, incorporate new technology, or change altogether?

According to a publication Small Farms in the United States by the USDA, “Persistence Under Pressure,” beef ranks in the top three commodities in all Gross Cash Farm Income (GCFI) categories. In every farm size class, three commodities account for at least two-thirds of class production: beef, grain/soybeans and hay.

Consider expansion

When prices are good, farmers tend to be more willing to explore or expand enterprises on the farm. For example, a cow-calf operation might add a feedlot enterprise to the farm or add another species such as sheep or goats to clean up pastures after beef. In both cases, extra income from livestock sales should be a result of the change. Perhaps expansion beyond cattle to make better use of the land, such as the addition of hemp or hazelnuts, is an option. This is also a time to consider what is the best route to streamline the farm. When prices are down, it is already too late to decide how to reduce spending without having to make hasty decisions.

Beef farming looks different on every farm. Operations range from intensely managed feedlots and cow/calf farms to hobby farms and everything in between. One thing all farms have in common is they can improve with management strategy.

Michigan State University offers several strategies for long-term success on your farm:

Choose your farm strategy. Planning a strategy for your farm includes determining what you are good at and what needs improvement. If you work off the farm and beef cattle are your evening and weekend job, you may not be efficient at making quality hay. In this case, hiring a custom harvester can reduce your need for expensive equipment on the farm and potentially improve forage quality. 

Create value for your customer. Farming is just work without a customer, so who is your product for? This farm assessment can take some time, as this is when a farm can change direction, increase production, or decrease it. Is your market reliable? Are you spending too much time and money on a less profitable part of the farm? This may be a time to consider outside-the-box ideas such as agrotourism and value-added direct-market products.

Increase asset utilization. Farmers are often thought of as asset rich and cash poor. Farms have buildings, land and equipment all depreciating in value every day. Scrutinizing what assets are being used to their fullest potential and what can be improved will increase the farm’s profitability. Can equipment be shared with a neighbor? Can hay be stored in a building not currently being used? Evaluate every space and tool on the farm to find that potential. 

Get smart. It is stressful being the jack of all trades. While that person is useful in general, they likely need assistance with a complex problem. Hire consultants to do the complex work for the farm. As the owner, you will still be making the ultimate decision, but you will be armed with knowledge and skill from an expert in their field.

Other strategies include knowing the market and buying right. Contracting services and inputs are an excellent risk management strategy. Manage working capital. Try to get fixed rates on loans and pay down loans when times are good.

Finally, think like a CEO. Farming is business, and goals, strategy, people and relationships are essential to your success.

Bjurstrom is the Extension agriculture agent in Kewaunee County. This column is provided by the University of Wisconsin Extension’s Wisconsin Beef Information Center. Learn more at

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